Sizing up the American Athletic Conference: Regular-season race coming down to wire

Andy Lyons

The sort-of new conference has been one of college basketball's most entertaining stories this year.

Only in its first year, the American Athletic Conference has been one of the more fun conferences to watch as the season has unfolded. There are not many people who would have thought that before the season began.

There was a lot of confusion when the Catholic Seven fled the Big East, took the name of the Big East and left the old Big East as the AAC. It is a great thing that it has been so competitive near the top of the conference this first year, because the AAC will have another tumultuous turn after the season when Louisville heads to the ACC and Rutgers goes to the Big Ten.

Our Andy Hutchins perfectly summed up how unpredictable the AAC has been this year with one tweet.

Louisville started out the season ranked No. 3, fell down a bit and climbed right back into national relevance. Cincinnati, who Louisville is tied for first in the conference with, was picked to finish fourth in the preseason poll by a sizable margin. Southern Methodist, currently one game out of first place, was picked to finish sixth. Temple was picked to finish fifth and is having its worst season since the mid 1970s.

Then there are the individual achievements. Russ Smith, who by all accounts had a fantastic year leading Louisville to a championship, is somehow better this year. If Doug McDermott didn't exist, Sean Kilpatrick would be a solid candidate for the Wooden Award. In fact, in Eamonn Brennan's weekly Wooden Award watch for ESPN, three players from the ACC have consistently made the cut. The quality of play has been so good that there is a solid case to make for a handful of players to win the conference's Player of the Year award.

And then there are the specific games. Shabazz Napier finished with 34 points in a 86-81 win in overtime to secure the season sweep of the Tigers. Kilpatrick had 28 points as Cincinnati beat Louisville, 69-66, at home. Smith got revenge, hitting an off-kilter jumper to give Louisville a 58-57 win over Cincinnati.

It has been a fluid first year for the American Athletic Conference, and now it gets to take that fun to the NCAA Tournament. Five teams are currently ranked in the top-25. SB Nation's Chris Dobbertean has five AAC teams heading to the NCAA Tournament, all hanging out within the No. 4 and No. 8 seeds.

There is still plenty on the line as the season closes out. Cincinnati can win out to be the conference champion, but Memphis can play spoiler. Louisville needs to push past Connecticut for its final game of the year. There is a lot of jockeying for first through fifth place to happen in time for the conference tournament, where seeding is always so important.

The American Athletic Conference has been a blast so far, and it doesn't show any signs of slowing down.

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